Report: IOSHA loses its teeth as workplace safety watchdog

February 24, 2013

The state agency charged with keeping Indiana workplaces safe inspects fewer than a third of the businesses it did in the 1980s, issues fines for serious violations that average less than half the national rate and issued violations at a lower rate than the national average the past decade, according to a newspaper report.

The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reports that the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created in the 1970s as an agency to be the state equivalent of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a dramatically changed agency that has struggled with employee turnover and with getting bogged down recently in high-profile cases.

IOSHA conducts surprise inspections to make sure workplace safety laws are being enforced. IOSHA also responds to workplace complaints and follows up on fatalities and serious injuries at workplaces.

There was a distinct drop in IOSHA inspections in the early 1990s, going from about 6,700 a year in 1989 to about 2,940 five years later, according to computerized OSHA data through September 2011. Except for some noticeable dips, the number has hovered around the agency's goal of 2,000 since 1999, according to the analysis by the Journal Gazette.

New Labor Commissioner Sean M. Keefer has "strongly reaffirmed" the 2,000 inspection goal and that it would be achieved, said Robert Dittmer, state Department of Labor spokesman.

Officials say lower fines are a reflection that they'd rather see businesses change and problems fixed than always issue a penalty. They also point to a significant, yearslong decline in reported workplace deaths and injuries nationally and in Indiana.

"I would say we've impacted it," former Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said before being replaced when Gov. Mike Pence took office last month. The public is demanding a safer workplace and she said employers see a competitive benefit for workplaces being safer.

IOSHA also has seen the number of inspectors drop from about 100 in the 1980s to about 40 now. OSHA has said IOSHA should have 70 inspectors, but the state petitioned three years ago to reduce that number, calling it excessive. That request is still pending.

Last year, a federal audit of IOSHA found it had a "long history of funding difficulties" and found staffing to be a major, ongoing problem. An improved economy, the report noted, might even make the issue worse by luring staff away to higher-paying jobs.

IOSHA acknowledges staff turnover has been a problem, along with some highly publicized cases. For the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the agency said it had performed 1,205 inspections, far short of its goal. IOSHA said several staff members leaving in 2010 was partly to blame, along with a lengthy training period for new hires.

Two highly publicized cases also drew a lot of manpower: The death of 20-year-old University of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan while filming football practice on Oct. 27, 2010, when winds of up to 53 mph blew over the lift he was on; and the August 2011 stage rigging collapse at the State Fair that killed seven people and injured nearly 60 others.

"Every time we do one of those, that's going to put our numbers down," Torres said of high-profile cases. "The State Fair took six months, and it was two compliance officers full time every day for six months and a handful of others during that period of time."

Mark Crouch, associate professor of labor studies at IPFW, said he doesn't think IOSHA is feared by Indiana industry.

"If you make the salaries for the agency low enough, no one in business has to worry about inspections at random when they don't have enough staff to answer the phones and deal with complaints," Crouch said.

Thomas Black, a safety consultant and owner of Safer Worker Systems in Fort Wayne, said he believes some employers, especially in the construction sector he deals with, are putting more emphasis on being in compliance. He also said he is not sure more inspectors or higher fines will push employers to do a better job of following the rules.

"I think that when you've got a group of people like that, I think maybe Indiana is saying, 'Hey, we know our market, we know our people, and we know that we don't need to be hammering people,' " he said.


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